Cooking Companions launched
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Cooking Companions launched

Jewish Family Services matches volunteers and elderly clients to eat, talk, and share

From left, Fran Thiessen, Miriam Rinn, Roni Blinder, and Barbara Golub are the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey’s first cohort of Cooking Companions. (JFCS)
From left, Fran Thiessen, Miriam Rinn, Roni Blinder, and Barbara Golub are the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey’s first cohort of Cooking Companions. (JFCS)

Elderly people living on their own, and especially those unable to get out of the house with ease, have been shown to be at great risk of malnutrition and depression. Cooking Companions, a new pilot program aimed at relieving both problems, has just begun under the auspices of the Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey.

Cooking Companions is designed to help ensure proper nutrition for frail and homebound older adults while providing stimulating mealtime conversation that they often yearn for but generally do not get. It joins and enhances other long-time JFS programs, Kosher Meals on Wheels and Friendly Visitor.

Patty Stoll, the head of the JFS-NNJ’s Senior Service Department, said that Cooking Companions “adds another element to address social isolation faced by seniors as they age and have health problems, no longer drive, and are not near family.”

Four local women — Fran Thiessen of Edgewater, Miriam Rinn of Cliffside Park, Roni Blinder of Englewood, and Barbara Golub of Demarest — are the first volunteers trained to take part in the monthly Cooking Companions pilot.

Ms. Blinder, a mother of four, heard about the program through her involvement in Kosher Meals on Wheels. She is one of about 120 volunteers who deliver a week’s worth of frozen dinners to clients in Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties; she volunteered and was trained as a Cooking Companion too.

“All these years I’ve been dropping off Meals on Wheels, but I don’t always see the person because they may be sleeping or not home, and when they are home I never know if they’d really like to talk,” Ms. Blinder said.

After her Cooking Companions training, she was matched with a Holocaust survivor in her 90s. “We had a lot of conversations even before our first dinner,” Ms. Blinder said. “She was very much waiting for me to come and the conversation over dinner went very easily. It was very intimate, sitting in her kitchen, eating together. She even talked about what we’ll talk about the next time I come.”

Although the volunteers commit to dining with their companions once a month, Ms. Blinder would like to do so every two weeks.

Funded by a $175,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, this is shared with eight other Jewish Family Services agencies in New Jersey. The Cooking Companions pilot is operating in 15 of New Jersey’s 21 counties.

Each of the nine participating agencies has a nurse or dietitian who teaches volunteers about nutritious food choices for various diets related to chronic conditions affecting seniors, such as diabetes and hypertension. Volunteers are recruited, trained, and supervised by the agency’s social workers.

A JFS staff social worker and care manager for homebound seniors have been evaluating potential clients, some of whom already receive Kosher Meals on Wheels. “We have a variety of ways to identify clients who would benefit from this,” Ms. Stoll said.

About 17 elderly people have been chosen to participate — and that means that more volunteers are needed as soon as possible. Call (201) 837-9090 for more information.

Ms. Rinn already volunteers as a JFS Friendly Visitor. Every week, she spends time with a senior; they talk to each other in Yiddish. “It is a very rewarding experience for me, and Cooking Companions sounded like a really fun and creative program, another intriguing way to connect with people who don’t have much company,” she said. (Ms. Rinn also reviews theater for the Jewish Standard.)

Cooking Companion’s original concept was that volunteers would cook with their companions and then eat together. In practice, that often is not possible, for a variety of reasons: The elderly person may not have the stamina to prepare a meal, even with assistance, or may not have properly functioning kitchen facilities, and the time involved in shopping for ingredients, cooking, cleaning up the kitchen, and eating may be too difficult for volunteers to manage.

“In the training, they explained that we’d basically be eating with an older person and may be cooking with them, but not necessarily,” Ms. Rinn said. “They asked us to always check with the client if they want to participate in the cooking, if they’d like a home-cooked meal, or if they are craving a certain restaurant food I could buy and bring over. The heart of the program is really eating with the client.”

Ms. Blinder said that she likes to cook for her family and therefore is quite happy to prepare extra food at home to bring to her companion. She asked her companion what foods she most likes to eat. For the first dinner, Ms. Blinder brought over homemade salmon, steamed vegetables, pasta, dessert, fruit, and muffins. “She said, ‘It’s a lot!’ and I explained that I wanted her to have leftovers.”

Her companion seemed to enjoy the meal. “She was comfortable being in her own surroundings; she didn’t have to go out anywhere and she didn’t have to worry about impressing me since I brought everything,” Ms. Blinder said.

Susan Greenbaum, the CEO of Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey, said that Cooking Companions complements the agency’s Care Management Services, “providing an additional touch point with this vulnerable population.”

The grant will fund the pilot program through next March. “We hope to be able to sustain the program beyond that because we believe it will be beneficial to clients and volunteers alike,” Ms. Stoll said.

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